Tomatoes and other summer vegetables may be the gardening world's Holy Grail, but it's fall garden veggies like garlic and broccoli that have my green thumb of a heart. Why, you ask, do I feel so warm towards cold-weather cuisine? They love the chilly temperatures from which bugs, weeds and disease flee – which means less daily work for me. Plus, I can have fresh carrots, onions and lettuce all winter long without days of endless canning. What fair-weather tomato can boast this? We interviewed Sal Gilbertie, co-author of Small Plot, High-Yield Gardening with Larry Sheehan, who gave us a plainclothes how-to for planning a successful and manageable fall garden. Read on for insider tips about when to plant cold weather vegetables, companion gardening and even harvesting seeds for next year's planting.
For fall and winter gardening, fixing on a planting schedule is the first and most important step. Why? Most cold-weather plants like cabbages and endives love the cold, and don't get tasty unless they freeze a little bit. But that doesn't mean they can germinate, or push out tiny baby leaves, if the soil isn't warm enough. Additionally, a too early planting could risk bolting, which means the plant puts all its energy towards producing seeds instead of vegetables. To know when to plant, one must plan.
To plan your fall or winter garden schedule, find your first killing frost date, which is an average date that your area typically gets so cold that most warm-weather plants die. For example, my area - Portland, Oregon – commonly has their first frost on or around November 15th, while my hometown of Lancaster, Pennsylvania experiences frost an entire month earlier – October 15th.
Don't know your area's first frost date? Go to Mother Earth News to find out.
Once you know the estimated date for frost and cold weather, you can start counting back how much time each plant needs to reach maturity (garden jargon for how long a plant takes before you can eat it). Each plant is different, so research is key here. The best way to determine how long a plant will need to reach maturity is to look at the back of the seed packets or planter markers.
Check out this cold-weather crop timeline from Mother Earth News for knowing when to plant your fall and winter crops.
Not many nurseries sell cold weather vegetable starts, so consider growing your fall garden from seeds. Do you want heirloom purple carrots, or how about a disease-resistant green cauliflower? These varieties are often only available from specialty seed stores and catalogs, another benefit of starting from seed. The downside? Growing from seed is (slightly) more work than grabbing a started plant from a nursery.
Check out unique cold weather heirloom seeds from Victory Seeds.
To start your fall garden plants from seed, forget seed trays and potting soil. Since your planting in the summer when soil temperatures are already warm, you can actually sow, or plant, the cold weather seeds directly into the soil. Gilbertie recommends setting aside an empty but clean patch of the garden to sow cold weather seeds. “As the seeds germinate and are at least 1 inch tall, you can transplant them into the garden at the proper spacing.” Or you can directly sow seeds into your summer garden alongside plants that are still producing.
See what the soil temperature requirements are and days to germination for your fall and winter garden vegetables from Heirloom Seeds.
The biggest mistake new gardeners make when starting from seed? Planting the seeds too deep. Be careful to adhere to the seed packets' directions for seed depth – they mean it! Gilbertie writes, “I sow carefully to eliminate excess thinning in some spots and vacancies in others.” He uses an inexpensive device called a seed vibrator – be careful when using a Google search on that one! Gardeners can make a “homemade version with stiff paper in a modification of your basic paper airplane design,” says Gilbertie. “If you do it this way, simply tap the seeds out along your gardener's yardstick, or any handy board, to ensure even distribution of the seeds.”
Check out what a seed vibrator looks like from Instructables and then learn how to make The Arrow Paper Airplane from Paper Airplane Design for your own handmade seed vibrator.
Gilbertie also advises using sand to cover seed in furrows, or rows, if you're going to plant as shallowly as he does. “The use of clean sand – sharp mason's sand or the sand sold in sacks and used for children's sandboxes... holds seeds in place in the furrow. Shallow sowing of seed such as I recommend invites easy displacement by water or other jostling, but sand is heaver than ordinary garden soil and helps the row hold to its pattern as sown,” writes Gilbertie.
You've created a planting timeline and even have seeds sprouting in an out-of-the-way part of the garden. But your fall and winter vegetables won't flourish without the right soil.
“Rich, well-structured, ready-to-garden soil seldom occurs in nature... If you want a good garden soil, you're going to have to build it yourself,” writes Gilbertie. First, determine which soil you have by dropping a few handfuls into a shoe box or pail and show them to an expert, found at either a garden center or maybe a friendly neighbor. They will tell you that it is either too light and sandy, too dense and clay-like or (if you're very lucky, Goldilocks), just right. Sandy soil can be amended with animal manure or compost while clay soil will need organic matter.
Once you've determined the texture of the soil you have, you'll want to complete a chemical analysis of the soil. Sounding too much like an episode of Bill Nye, the Science Guy? Don't worry. Garden soil test kits require little more then adding a pinch of soil into a test tube, add water and a sprinkle of chemical, and then combine. The resulting colors will decode the amount of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium in the soil.
Check out an soil test kit from Heirloom Seeds.
Why is knowing about the soil important for a cold weather vegetable garden? A bit like toddlers, vegetables are picky eaters. Cabbage loves NPK levels of 13, 14 and 16, so planting radishes (who prefer NPK levels of 6, 9 and 10) too close to soil with these high levels will disrupt growth. Moreover, if your vegetables don't produce as you expect but there's no sign of disease, it could be that the soil isn't rich enough for that particular plant.
There's so much to think about when planning you first fall garden. So instead of feeling overwhelmed, let's review a little. First, check that you've got fluffy soil (not too light and not too dense). Then, via a soil test kit, determine if your soil needs a nutrient kick. If anything is very low, add some animal manure to balance things out.
Lucky you! Other than when first transplanting, your fall garden won't require much fertilization. Gilbertie says, “Always, when putting in new crop, add dehydrated manure - chicken or cow or turkey - and then lightly mix it into soil when making transplants. It is safe and gentle, and plants will take them up as needed. If the ground is good, you won't need extra fertilizer (not like tomatoes which are fruit groups).”
While the colder weather eliminates the majority of pest and garden insects, brassicas like broccoli and brussel sprouts just seem to invite pests. To prevent them from munching on your fall and winter garden veggies before you do, Gilbertie advises this: “Daily, squeeze essential oil on to the plant. Or, spray plants with a garlic and vinegar mixture.” He says that it's an organic alternative to chemical pesticides and, even more loathsome, hand-pulling the pests.
Companion planting is another way to eliminate insects and pests. From his book, Gilbertie says, “White onions, yellow onions, Bermuda onion, Egyptian onions, shallots, leeks, garlic, and garlic chive all possess the same off-putting characteristics for bugs, and in most regions of the country there are no serious threats to the alliums from pests or disease.” He's taken to planting onions of some type along the border of garden as well as throughout.
Mulch is another way to protect your cold-weather plants. Not only does it hold moisture close to the soil and roots, but it also controls weeds. If you're a gardening zone that has particularly cold winters, Gilbertie says, “You need either cold frame - which is what the average home owner will use - or row covers. Gardeners can even make row covers with heavy wire or thin piping. Make little loops [with the wire or piping], stick them in the ground and then cover [the loops] with fabric or plastic.” Using these rows, Gilbertie says that he's had kale growing right through Christmas in a northeast winter.
Ah, finally, you're ready to reap the rewards of your (not very) hard work! Keeping it simple, if the vegetable looks like what you'd buy at the grocery store, it's probably ready. If you're wanting a more 'scientific' way to know when to harvest, read the seed packets or do an online search to find out when your specific variety is ready to harvest.
You can either pull up or cut the vegetables as they are ready, or, especially for root crops, consider over-wintering your fall and winter vegetables. Each vegetable is a little different in how it needs to be overwintered, but generally, weed the garden, mark where vegetables are growing and then heavily mulch. If you are interested in overwintering your root crops, be sure to buy seed varieties that mention winter or overwintering in the description because they will be hardy and able to sustain colder temperatures.
Check out how to plant overwintering vegetables from eHow.
When harvesting, Gilbertie writes in his book, “I'm in the garden every day once a particular crop has started producing, because I know that the more I pick, the more I'm going to get out of the crop before it's finished.”
Learn how to store root crops like potatoes and onions from Allotment Vegetable Growing.
Another alternative is to allow your plant to bolt, or go to seed, and then harvest the seeds to use for next fall. This can only be done for heirloom varieties as the F1 and F2 varieties have been cross-bred and will not always breed true to form. A bit like mating a donkey and a horse to get a serviceable but sterile mule, some seed varieties have been cross-bred with others and won't produce the same vegetable as you started with.
See how to harvest seeds from a carrot plant from Carrot Museum!
Cleaning Up After Yourself
As your fall and winter garden winds down and your garden visions turn towards the spring crops like sugar peas and strawberries, it's time to clean up. Remove any spent plants, or plants that aren't producing any more. If you're overwintering, be sure to pull those up too. Gilbertie recommends testing the soil after your first year gardening, to supplement deficient soil.
The Gardener's Last Word
Gardening isn't just about soil or seeds, but instead, as Gilbertie writes,“No gardening venture comes without its disappointments and mistakes.” In other words, let go of control and give yourself enough grace to make mistakes. There will always be something to mess you up – and that's okay. “[Gardening is] a work in progress. You learn as you grow.” Pun intended.
Image credits (from top): MNN.com, Examiner.com, Fairfield Patch, expectasoldsignblog.com, eat-homegrown.com and veggiegardeningtips.com